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4 posts from January 2021

29 January 2021

Bede, The Dig and Sutton Hoo

This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial

A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum

Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.

Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.

The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.

A decorated initial B in a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').

A text-page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.

A still from the Netflix production of The Dig

A still from The Dig (Netflix)

The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.

The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.

 

Julian Harrison

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19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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The Polonsky Foundation logo

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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08 January 2021

A virtual get-away, medieval style

In these dark days of January, we all dream of escape. Perhaps it's time for a virtual vacation, medieval style. Here are some options to choose from.

France

Paris is the ultimate city of romance and culture — a firm favourite of tourists. This miniature shows the River Seine and perhaps the Ile de la Cité with the Palais (now the Conciergerie) on the right. You are unlikely to meet armoured men there nowadays, though you may see some ‘gilets jaunes’.

A manuscript image of knights in armour blockading Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind

Knights in armour blockade Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind, in Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1270–1380 (Paris, 1380–1400): Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 135v

Or how about renting a chateau in the French countryside?

A manuscript image of the Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes

The Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes, in the Roman de la Rose (Bruges, c. 1500): Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

Italy

Tuscany has it all — rolling hills with stunning vistas, hilltop villages of luminous Tuscan stone, sunshine, art and wine — and Florence, beloved home-town of Dante Alighieri, pictured here flying over the landscape with Beatrice, in his vision of Paradise.

A manuscript image of Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice

Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice (Tuscany, c.1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 157r

Spain

Or how about a package holiday to sunny Spain? A Spanish trip should always include a ‘Costa’ as the sun is bound to shine and the nightlife is great. Do you prefer the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava or Costa del Sol? 

A manuscript image of the Sun with an angel and birds

The Sun with an angel and birds, in the Silos Apocalypse (Northern Spain, c. 1100): Add MS 11695, f. 197r

Portugal

Lisbon’s palaces, monasteries and its great location on the estuary of the River Tagus  make it a perfect place to spend a weekend. This detailed border image in a genealogy of the kings and queens of Portugal shows the major sites and the city, including the Jeronimos monastery (completed 1521) a little way up the coast. It was painted by the artist Antonio de Holanda, who was based in Lisbon.

A manuscript image of a genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour

A genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour (Lisbon, 1530–34): Add MS 12531, f. 7r 

Cyprus and the Greek Islands

Cyprus is perhaps the destination for foodies. The well-known medieval armchair traveller, Sir John Mandeville, ‘visited’ Cyprus, where he found various recreational activities including magnificent feasts. Some of the places seen by Mandeville were illustrated by a Bohemian artist.

A manuscript image of a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast

Recreation in Cyprus with, above, a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast, in an illustrated version of Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, early 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 5v

For those who wish to combine the sun and sea of the Greek Islands with a visit to a World Heritage Site, a visit to the island of Patmos is recommended. It was here that St John the Evangelist was exiled and had his vision of the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse was built on the site of the cave where John heard the voice of God. Images of him writing the Book of Revelations on Patmos are usually found at the beginning of medieval Apocalypses.

John, on the island of Patmos, being visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat

John, on the island of Patmos, is visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat (Netherlands or Germany, c. 1400): Add MS 38121, f. 3v 

Sun, sand and sea

There are different types of holidays to choose from, some of them further afield, but for most people, a beach holiday is the most popular. Sadly, there are not many pictures of beaches in medieval manuscripts. However, we did find one in a 16th-century notebook of botanical watercolours of plant species and landscapes by the Italian botanist, Gherardo Cibo. The plant, Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed, is shown beside a long beach with fishermen carrying rods, but with no parasols or deckchairs in sight.

A manuscript image of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background

Illustration of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background (Italy, 1564–84):  Add MS 22332, f. 150r

And for those who enjoy swimming, please do remember your swimming trunks; it's advisable not to wear a crown. This image is from a collection of tales of famous women by Christine de Pizan, and it illustrates the story of Camilla from the Aeneid. King Metabus escapes across the river with his daughter after being dethroned by his enemies.

A manuscript image of the Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind

The Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind, in a Flemish translation of Cité des dames (Netherlands, 1475): Add MS 20698, f. 64v

Asia

For exploring Asia, Alexander the Great would be the best guide. With him, you could go diving, visit the trees of the Sun and Moon, and see exotic beasts in India.

A manuscript image of Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask

Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, in Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1444–45): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

A manuscript image of the trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander

The trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander, in Ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 31v–32r

An African Safari

The ultimate destination for the adventure traveller is a safari to Africa. Here are some of the animals you might see if you are lucky – and some you might not!

A manuscript image of a leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal

A leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal, in a bestiary: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 7r

Staying at Home

For our British readers, if this is all too much and you prefer a staycation, there are some lovely places to visit in our own green and pleasant land.

A manuscript image of an English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships

An English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships, in Wavrin, Chroniques de la Grande Bretagne (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 24v

Don't forget that you can explore these and other manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

 

Chantry Westwell

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